By Jeremy Moodey
One of the privileges of being a CEO of a Christian development charity is that I get to read progress reports and case studies from our partners in the field. These stories of transformation and redemption are truly inspirational, and none more so than the one that arrived this morning from the Near East Council of Churches (NECC) in Gaza.
The NECC has a particular focus on work amongst Palestinian refugees, but since the UN estimates that about three-quarters of Gaza’s population are refugees, many still living in impossibly overcrowded refugee camps, this is a meaningless distinction. The NECC’s is an indiscriminate ministry of hope and compassion to all Gazans, irrespective of their faith or background.
The statistics in the report spoke for themselves: the Council’s three primary health clinics serve over 25,000 impoverished families and almost 55,000 children. In the first quarter of 2012 there were 3,218 ante-natal visits, 7,313 children who visited a well-baby clinic and 11,505 visits to a recently established anti-malnutrition and anaemia project. A total of 1,412 people visited one of the NECC’s dental clinics.
And then there were the case studies from the NECC’s vocational training programme. Take for example the story of Omar, a 15-year-old boy living in a deprived family of 12 who had dropped out of school and lost all hope. He had been trained in carpentry at one of the NECC’s training centres and now was intent on establishing his own carpentry shop.
Or Salha, a young woman aged 21 who also lived in a large family in a run-down neighbourhood of Gaza City; her father was a poor manual worker and her mother and grandmother were in Egypt for medical treatment. Salha had enrolled onto the NECC’s secretarial training course and now hoped to secure a job to look after her family. Both Omar and Salha are Muslims.
The head of the NECC once told me: “People mock us for the excellent vocational training we provide, for in Gaza there are no jobs because of the Israeli blockade. But we just say that we are Christians and we always hope for a better future”. When one hears such sentiments, which lie at the heart of the NECC’s Christian witness in Gaza, it is difficult not to be reminded of 1 Peter 3:15: “But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect…”
But in Gaza, the NECC is not the only expression of Christian witness. It is estimated that out of 1.7 million inhabitants, effectively imprisoned in a territory the size of the Isle of Wight, barely 1,500 are Palestinian Christians. Yet this tiny community punches way above its weight in terms of social impact: in addition to the NECC’s health and dental clinics and vocational training centres, there is a YMCA providing services to young Gazans, a Gaza branch of the Palestinian Bible Society, several Christian schools and a number of Greek Orthodox projects. Nearly all the beneficiaries of these projects are Muslims.
And of course there is also the Al-Ahli Hospital in Gaza City, which comes under the auspices of the Anglican Bishop in Jerusalem. Originally established by the Church Missionary Society in 1907, the hospital today treats over 40,000 outpatients and almost 5,000 inpatients annually. In recent months the hospital has been very badly affected by Gaza’s power crisis.
Earlier this month BibleLands received the following message from the indefatigable hospital director, Dr Suhaila Tarazi: “We are living a new crisis because of the electricity power cuts which vary from 18 to 20 hours daily. As a result Al-Ahli has minimised the number of daily surgical operations and the number of working hours of the boiler, which means our patients have hot water only for four hours during the morning. We have even reached the point where we have to close the emergency department during the evening and night because of the lack of electricity and the lack of funds to pay the extra cost of fuel”.
But then being salt and light in Gaza has never been the easy option. Ironically, the biggest challenge facing Gazan Christians is not Islamic fundamentalism or Hamas extremism, since Christians and Muslims have co-existed peacefully for centuries in Gaza, but the sheer relentless grind of living under siege and occupation, and the inability to travel freely.
For example, much is made of Israel allowing Palestinian Christians to access their own holy places in Jerusalem and Bethlehem at Easter and Christmas, and this is indeed to be commended. Yet all Gazan Christians between the ages of 18 and 35 are labelled by the Israeli authorities as “potential terrorists” (without any evidence of actual terrorist activity) and thus are denied permits to visit the holy places.
The tiny Christian community in Gaza is facing existential threats on all fronts, and it is no surprise that their numbers are falling. But they refuse to be seen as victims, or even (given their long-rootedness in the land) as a minority. We in the West would do well to recognise them not as victims, but as agents of Christ’s mercy and compassion and healing in a territory that sorely needs all three of these blessings. BibleLands is proud to support their work.
Jeremy Moodey is Chief Executive of BibleLands, the inter-denominational development charity which supports Christian social ministry in the lands of the Bible, including in Gaza. It is currently running a mini-appeal to raise funds for the Al-Ahli Hospital to buy fuel and keeps its services running. You can support this appeal by visiting www.biblelands.org.uk/gaza or by texting FUEL25 to 70070 and selecting the amount you want to give.